"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER FOUR <=== / ===> CHAPTER SIX
Apply to the gods for help in our hour of darkest need, Valanda had told me.
Me. The fake pilgrim who has been drifting around the land in search of the good life rather than divine inspiration.
And she hadn’t even told me how I was to do this. Would it be enough to raise my voice, call out to the gods? Was there a ritual I had never heard about? One that surely the Divine Speaker at Faithold could have explained to me? Something that a true pilgrim would know in the depths of his soul, ingrained by his faith and belief?
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe. Only a fool would claim that there are no gods governing the world. Divinity is obvious in every step that we take, every breath that fills our lungs. It isn’t just the temples and the clerics getting fat from the stipends and fees paid by their congregations – excepting, of course, the priests and priestesses of Alyssa who could never be anything but alluring and perfect, whose faces were never marred by wrinkles such as Valanda’s, or as disgustingly beautiful as Grapes’. As a matter of fact, I was never put off by the face of a male Alyssian cleric; for some reason I recognized that the priest was attractive to women, yet neither he nor his brothers ever seemed a rival.
I digress. Yes, I am aware that I keep doing that. Were you in the place I am in now, you might do the same. The thought of writing a document such as this never intruded upon me before my journey into Deersrun Hill, and –
I just keep on digressing! Time to stop and return to the matter at hand.
Belief. Faith. They weren’t just empty words to me, trust me.
Ahh, “trust”. One more word in that sequence. And quite the point of my troubles. Did I trust the gods to spare their good will for me? I hadn’t done much for them. Yes, of course, like everybody else I do give sacrifices to them. Also, I make a point of visiting every shrine and temple on my way. It wouldn’t help my image as a pilgrim if I skirted them! You have to talk to the priests, sometimes even the acolytes and neophytes and whatever else they’re called. Sometimes because they might share some of their riches with you, but more often because their faithful flock will accept you all the more readily.
I remembered a temple of Alyssa, several months earlier. I had entered, and I had stood silent, still, watching the clerics, so impossibly beautiful. The longing for the women was so overpowering, my mouth so dry, that I wished I could have been a simple supplicant for the services. Some part of me said that indeed I would service the goddess Alyssa in this fashion if I gave in to the longing. Was that not why the temple had been erected in the first place? Was that not why the priestesses were this beautiful and perfect?
Yes. And no. I stood there, and for a brief, fleeting moment I understood that the temple and the clerics were about more than the pleasures of the flesh. I had heard others expound on this, the foolishness of seeking for a quenching of longing in a temple. I had always dismissed it, and I had gone to the Alyssian temples with no more on my mind. Never did any of the priestesses involve me in a conversation afterwards, as I had heard that they usually did with other supplicants, to discuss and solve their problems. I had always reasoned that I simply didn’t have any problems that needed solving.
At that point, though, I understood the difference. I had never been ready to face my problems, I had never wanted to face the gods.
And, truth be told, I had no desire to do so at that time, either. I turned and hurried out the temple, towards the nearest inn to spend my last silver coin on a long night of drinking and indulging. The drink – good ale, very good ale, blessed by Airnté – spurred my mind, and in my cloudy thoughts I imagined a conversation with a priestess, her arm draped over me, her breath warm on my chin, as she asked me when I would start devoting myself to the gods in more than just words. She was full of the Lady’s spirit then – in my mind only, of course -, and her words hurt me deeply. I had taken of her, of the goddess’s gift to mortals, but what was I ready to return? Did I just take and take and take, damned be the consequences? Was I willing to spend a good lifetime before the Messenger of Death touched me with his thin fingers, carrying me to the abode of the gods, where I would finally face those I had spent my existence faulting?
I remembered that day then, in the caverns within Deersrun Hill, looking at Valanda. The beautiful wizardess who reminded me of the priestess of my dreams, the one embued with Alyssa. Valanda’s face began to merge with that of the priestess. And slowly, watching her, watching the dream image, I realized something else.
You see, I have never been good at dreaming of faces. And I have never asked anybody else how they dream. But with me, I know there are people – sometimes familiar ones, and I associate names with them, yet their faces are diffuse, unreal. Somehow the faces stay in the realm of the unfinished.
Yet that priestess I had dreamed about in my bucolic night, she had had a real face. And only then in the caves did I realize that I had seen that face before, on so many a statue showing the utter perfection of female beauty, before the temples consecrated to her name.
The priestess’s face had been that of the goddess Alyssa herself.
For the moment, for that moment, Valanda bore the same face. I looked at a goddess, and I was so small and insignificant. A lout who had abused the divine names. A walking blasphemy.
“Ahnfredas,” she said softly – I wondered if this was the first time she had called me by my given name -, “begin now. Ask the gods for their help. We all need it.”
I was about to cry. Quickly I shut my eyes, sank to my knees – heard the armor creak all too loudly, the breastplate, the chainmail on arms and legs -, and I folded my hands before my chest, lowered my head.
Facing the gods is never an easy task, even for the faithful. I felt less like a faithful in that instant.
How long did I stay on my knees? How long did I wish for an answer from the gods? A sign that they were pleasantly surprised at my sudden humility and filled me with magic, gave me a way to aid Valanda combat the dwarven bard. Oh, anything would have been nice. Maybe even the lightning flashing down from the heavens, burrowing through all of Deersrun Hill, straight into me, frying me into ashes like the remains of Red’s map.
The others were staring at me expectantly, waiting for a sign as well. I don’t know what was going through most of those heads – Grapes’, I can imagine. He was hoping for that lightning, and I’ll bet all the fortunes in the Topay Coalition that he had no idea I wouldn’t have minded being struck at that point.
Valanda… She had faith in me. I don’t know where she had found it. She was far too smart to believe my little tale. Goodness, she must have seen through my façade the first time she saw me, back when I was in Torrindas’ bed, dreaming of Grapes on Carter’s fist, about to smash me to smithereens. Yet she had faith. In what? I have never scrounged up the courage to ask her, fearing that her answer would somehow destroy what we have, little though it may mean to her, much as it means to me.
Did I give away too much? Do you now know how this tale will end?
No. No, you don’t, for I am not speaking of the Valanda who was in the tunnels with me. And neither, surprise of surprises, is this fake pilgrim truly me. I have changed – in ways that neither I nor you can ever fully comprehend. In a way, I died. In a way, I was reborn. In a way…
In a way I am blathering. That, I suppose, has never changed, not in the days when good Hernaldas Bluekeg, my honored father, the shoemaker, spanked my bottom; not in the days when I ruined a shot at good money with my stupid mouth revealing too much about myself; not in the days when I was in Deersrun Hill, going down the caverns, going down on my faith; and not in the days since, when I have become a different being.
Blathering aside, I tried my best to reach the gods. I prayed, with all my might. To my surprise I remembered the words of so many prayers – even the Leaves and Wreathes of the Decirius priests, the traditional prayer of funeral. I whispered the words fervently, I gave all my soul to them – sounds, empty in themselves, but my heart was in them.
To no avail.
The gods ignored me. Decirius didn’t answer. Seram didn’t, nor did Maidoyú, nor Alyssa, nor Airnté, nor Olmawi, nor any of the other lords of the skies. I went through their names, shaped specific prayers for each of them, did my best to find a reason for each to help me and my comrades.
All I got was the realization of my insignifance. The gods didn’t care that I abused their names for my own tiny purposes. I was a mere speck on the world, as a fly leaves on a sheet of paper. Something that you might wipe off if you feel inclined, but most likely will simply leave alone. It’s too unimportant, not even enough to disturb your sense of pristine cleanness.
That is what I was to the gods. No more than a tiny speck of darkness.
I opened my eyes and looked up. A sea of expectant faces was around me, waiting for me to declare that the gods had granted me might. Me, Ahnfredas Bluekeg.
“Nothing,” I said and choked on the words.
Grapes chuckled. “I thought so,” he said with a barely concealed smile. A smile that vanished when he remembered that Valanda had suggested the prayer. “Uhm, Val, I… I’m sure that –“
“I know,” she replied with a look that managed to combine sad disappointment with understanding sympathy. Although she has never said so, I think she had been interested in Grapes. Well, I already told you about his effect on women. Valanda might be a wizardess, but she still is a woman. And I do hate that boy.
The noise intruded upon my disappointment – had it changed, or was it the same rhythm as before? I have never been good with music. Oh, sure, I noticed there was a rhythm to the grinding noise, but I could never have done anything like Scraps had, tapping it out on his thighs.
Scraps was among those closest to me, watching me with dire eyes that must have been filled with expectation earlier. I am not sure, but I think I had exchanged some words with him in the preceding hour. You know, I kept mentioning those angry glares of the laborers. Some stopped, some continued, but I had lost track of them after a while. Now and then I had found myself walking close to another man, speaking with him – much as if my interlocutor didn’t notice it was the stranger in their group and only saw the gleaming, glowater-lit armor.
When I declared that the gods hadn’t given me any magical power, much of the anger returned. I didn’t pay any attention to it – I was too much shut into my own letdown -, and so I asked Scraps about the rhythm.
The wiry man jerked his head up, surprised at being spoken to – and by whom! I’ll gladly acknowledge that he swallowed any angry words, instead cocked his head to listen to the rhythm. In a reflex his hands slipped to his thighs, started tapping, as he whispered, “Boom-boom!-boom!-ba-boom. No, that’s not… It’s a longer sequence, and –“ He cut himself off, his eyes widened as he snapped his fingers. The attention of the others switched to us, and Scraps announced, “The pilgrim’s right, the rhythm has changed. It’s more complicated, more – I don’t know, labored, I guess.”
“Labored?” Valanda pounced on the word, pushed me aside to stand right before Scraps. “Can you explain your ‘guess’?”
Scraps shrugged, licked his lips nervously. I only saw Valanda’s face from the side, but there was a hunger in her eyes, rather uncomfortable. I didn’t understand it, and frankly, even now I am uncertain how to explain it. Scraps didn’t, either, but he held up valiantly – the experience of suffering from Carter’s withering stares, no doubt -, and said, “I’m not sure… I mean, I got the rhythm now, it’s ba-boom-ba-boom!-ba –“
“Scraps, get to the point!” Cardsleeve yelled from behind a wall of comrades.
“Uhm, yeah,” our resident percussion expert nodded, doing his best not to look straight into Valanda’s eyes. “It’s just that the music was so even before,” I should mention the scoffing comments around us about ‘music’, “and now it’s not. It’s like you’re beating out a session on your drum, and suddenly your lead singer switches over to another song. You know the words, you’ve heard the song before, but you’re not sure about the right beat. You do your best to get into it, but you’re not sure about it, and you’re wondering whether your buddies will boot you out of the group because you can’t even get a simple –“ His voice tapered off, as he became of the more or less vacant eyes around him. Only Valanda’s were still focused; the rest of us was wondering what exactly he was talking about. “Well, you know that I play the drums!” Scraps finally exclaimed. “Over at the Goldspark, every other week. It’s not like it’s a bad place, and we’re starting to get noticed – why, the owner of the Trimmendale’s Rush has asked us to play at his joint, and –“
“You say,” Valanda interrupted him mercilessly and rather pointedly, “that the dwarven bard has changed his tune to something unfamiliar to his cohorts.”
Scraps’ head flew back to focus on her – something that he regretted instantly -, but he nodded quickly. “Yes, something like that. They’re getting into the rhythm now, but they have to work at it.”
The wizardess nodded, her eyes calmed down, losing that sense of hunger. She smiled at Scraps, patted his shoulder, before turning back to us. That hunger wasn’t gone, I sensed. It was buried behind a façade of good cheer – a natural façade, yet as effective as her glamor. “Carter,” she said, “maybe we were too quick to accept the pilgrim’s words. The bard has reacted to something, and it might very well be that it was Ahnfredas’ prayer.”
Now I was treated to a dark glare from Carter – a pleasure I’d gladly forgo any time, even in memory -, and I felt the need to shake my head, managing to shrug at the same time. “I didn’t feel anything! The gods didn’t speak to me, they just… I don’t know,” I finally squeezed out, feeling as small as a mouse.
“We cannot question the gods,” Valanda interfered, transferring the vintner’s stare to herself. (I heaved a sigh of relief, my hand snaking under the breastplate for Longstick’s flask of liquor.) “If they didn’t speak to him, we may be receiving a sign.”
“And that’s darn good enough for me,” Red said, planting his hand on Carter’s shoulder. “Let’s get going again. Whatever the bard’s up to, I don’t like to stay in one place to long.”
“Right,” Carter shrugged Red’s hand off, then waved the troup onward, into the corkscrew tunnel leading downward. “He’s a nasty –“ Another stop, another glare at Valanda, accompanied this time by a tiny smirk on his heavy lips. “She,” he continued, “is quite a pain.”
The wizardess nodded at that, giving no other sign that she was grateful for his changing of the pronoun.
We headed into the corkscrew tunnel. It was wide enough to allow three of us to walk side by side – not that we really tried. As usual, ours was a disorderly formation, one that would have put an army sergeant to tears. I have to say that Red occasionally tried to instill a sense of order into us, but he didn’t have much luck – with the sole exception of Weathervane. There may be something to be said about military duty.
Ahh, it’s not really important. We were milling about like that all the time, just a bunch of men – and one woman – doing their best not to get themselves killed.
You might wonder why earlier I wrote that nothing much happened during this time, and then I went on spending so much time detailing events nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a sign of how difficult it is to assign meaning to all those events. Memories tumble about in my mind, some as easy to grasp as if they had happened an hour ago, some so distant and cloudy as if they had happened to another person.
Did it matter that I prayed to the gods? Did it matter that the music changed?
What does really matter?
No, I will not go off on a tangential discussion of metaphysics now. That never serves any purpose but self-aggrandizing, and this document alone is enough of that. Yet as I keep writing, so much returns to my mind, so much that might explain better what happened afterwards, all the surprises that came.
In that vein I should also note a conversation I overheard during our march through the tunnel. It didn’t strike me as any more than a curiosity at the time, but looking back – well, I will just relate what I remember.
Scraps moved back to walk beside Slim Tim, pushing a grumbling Rymondas further off. “Say, Tim,” he said in a chatting tone, “does this stuff sound like dwarven drums? Just being curious, you know.”
The latter words were necessary since Slim Tim’s face darkened immediately, expecting some more accusations of the sort that Grapes had shot at him. (The boy was a good ways further to the front, staying by Valanda’s side as usual. I had drifted back for some reason or other, most of which had to do with the fact that I was nibbling at the apple I had found within the armor.)
Slim Tim shrugged after a moment. “I never heard any dwarves playing drums. Or anything else,” he said a bit more loudly, to make sure others heard, before dropping back into a conversational tone. “It doesn’t really sound like I expected it to. I do know that dwarves use rocks as instruments, specially shaped and so on. They aren’t exactly drums, and they aren’t exactly anything else, either.” He shrugged again. “I’ve read about somebody who was at a – well, a concert, I guess -, and he said that the dwarven rock music was loud, went into your sinews like a bad cold. But it didn’t really sound like rocks grating on each other.”
“Uh-huh,” Scraps muttered. “No drums, eh?”
“Not really, but – hey, Scraps, I’ve only read about it.”
“Sure thing, I was just wondering.” Scraps rolled his eyes. “Sure sounds like some massive drums down there.”
There, you have that conversation before you as I recall it. Drums or no drums, rock music or something else entirely. It meant as little to me as Scraps’ explanation about the taverns where he had played the drums himself. And there were some new surprises waiting for us after leaving the corkscrew tunnel – surprises that threw a new light on this conversation.
The tunnel took us about four hundred feet deeper into Deersrun Hill. You wonder how I could reach such a precise number? After all, I certainly am not an experienced spelunker. All things being equal, as far as measurements go, the same can be said for all my companions. Sure, they have spent much of their adult life in the caverns, and if I can use Grapes as an example, a lot of their childhood as well.
Nonetheless they rarely ranged down further than the upper five or seven levels. (Of course, describing those as ‘levels’ implies that they are even, as the floors of a building. Instead they meander up and down. You are on the second level, and you walk in a straight line, not choosing any stairway or any other means of consciously going, say, up – but still, you could find yourself in the basement of a home. The latter, I should mention, doesn’t belong to the actual levels of the cavern system. The basements are part of the buildings of Guardpeak, of the city itself.) Their idea of depths was measured by certain markers, such as the engraved map carved by Theralas’ great-grandfather.
I have to ask you to accept my description. If you bear out my long-winded tale, you will find an explanation.
By the time we reached the end of the tunnel – after several breaks we had taken here and there -, Weathervane was in the lead, about two hundred yards ahead of the rest. He had stopped scouting when we came to the exit, and his face was strangely unreadable.
“What’re you doing here?” Red shouted when we came close enough. “Keep looking for the bloody dwarves!”
Weathervane shook his head, waited until we were crowding the exit. “I don’t have to. I know exactly where they are.”
He pointed over his shoulder, out the exit, and now I could see that there was fear in his eyes. You have to understand that this was unusual for him. I don’t know about the ambush after the earthquake, how Weathervane – please excuse the expression – weathered that encounter. But I hadn’t seen him like this before. Neither, I took it by their reactions, had my comrades.
Red and Carter moved out first, pushing the pale Weathervane aside.
They stopped only a few steps out into the next cave, the light cones from their breastplates cutting through the darkness. “Holy Decirius!” Carter exclaimed, a rare moment of piety from him.
When they finally moved aside, allowing us to follow them, and our own armor lights brightened the cave beyond, I understood the vintner. That cave was rather large – longer than wide, the floor sweeping up here, down there. Stalagmites and stalactites joined to form natural columns, irregular row after irregular row of them.
Inbetween those columns, we saw the dwarves, lit by the sharp cones of our lamps. It wasn’t an ambush – at least not one that would ever succeed.
For the dwarves were dead.
Every single one of them had dropped to the floor, in various death throes – some were clutching their throats, some were simply sitting there, looking with amazed eyes at nothing. Several were mounted on arydogs, and now I had the chance to see how their riding gear functioned, those strange straps that had been on the lead arydog pursuing me at the beginning of my tale.
Oh, yes, the dogs were dead as well. One had lived long enough to ram its head repeatedly against a stalagmite, bursting the skull – incidentally its rider’s as well. Agony, fear, surprise registered on each dark, gray face that I could see.
“How –“ Valanda breathed when she saw the tableau of death, but she didn’t continue.
I knew what she was wondering about. How had the dwarves died? What had killed them?
Toxic gas perhaps? I had heard that this kind of thing can happen in mines – yet we hadn’t had any troubles. And none of us developed any problems while we were walking through that cave, expecting one or the other corpse.
It had to be something else. Something that had turned on the wild dwarves. Something that might decide we were going to be next.
Still deeper below us, the music of grinding rock and a gravelly voice singing continued.
Read on in Chapter Six!